“But You Don’t Seem Depressed…” – On Covert Depression and 6 Tips for Helping Someone With Depression

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

Disclaimer: every depression is different and every person with depression is different. This blog is written from my own personal experience and should be taken as such.

When I went through my first depression back in college, I don’t think anyone knew how I felt. The time I spent in a depressed state, staring out of a window, having suicidal thoughts, sometimes cutting, were times when I was alone. I rented a room in a student dorm, right next to one of my friends, yet never said a word about how empty I felt. It was almost like there was a costume hanging right outside my door that I stepped into whenever I left my room. I put on the “Happy Jorinde” suit and went about my day, chatting and joking with friends.

When I look back on this time, I realise that putting on that suit may have felt fake during the times of being and feeling depressed, but it also offered me an escape from that state. If I was pretending to be okay, part of that okay-ness rubbed off temporarily and gave my brain a break.

My depression now is less hidden than it was back in those days, but in most social situations I’m still wearing a costume of sorts. I smile at people on the street but the smile vanishes as soon as I turn my head. I chat with friends and family, but I feel that much of my response is automatic, as if I’ve turned on a program I’ve run for years. In the program, I laugh easily, joke around, am attentive to how others are feeling. In the program, I cook, clean my house and bring my kids to school. So why not run the program the whole time?

Well, the program is starting to cost me too much energy. As I walked through the forest again yesterday (one of the things I can still get myself to do), I noticed the effort it took to greet people who passed by. Responding to messages on my phone became so anxiety-provoking that I just turned it off completely. There were long stretches in which all I could do was stand still and breathe, away from everyone.

The little moments of joy that I can still experience while I’m pulling myself together are starting to seem like stars in a vast universe of darkness. Yes, they can be bright and beautiful, but they can also appear really insignificant. In the end, when I look at the whole picture, I mostly see a dark void.

I don’t write this to bring you down,( and if I have I’m really sorry.) I write this because I want you to know that just because you can’t see that someone is depressed, doesn’t mean that they aren’t, or worse, that they’re faking it. (I, for one, don’t see why anyone would fake a depression. It doesn’t make any sense to me.)

So what are possible signs that someone is suffering in silence? How can you tell that a loved one is going through a depression?

For me, I’ve noticed that I don’t take care of myself properly. I still maintain my basic hygiene, but I don’t do my hair or put on nice clothes. I’m not working at the moment and don’t see how I could possibly. I don’t do much “for fun” anymore because I have a hard time experiencing actual fun. I have a difficult time doing household chores, staying on top of things such as paperwork or maintaining relationships, choosing to pull back from social life in many ways. Most of those things are only visible to those who are close to me.

Yet, there are also people who suffer from high functioning depression and who still do extraordinary things. There are people who fully engage in their social lives and party or who still maintain a heavy workload. But for many of them, and certainly for me, in those moments it feels like you’re being an imposter.

So how can you tell? You can ask. Repeatedly. If you really want to know how someone is doing, and if you suspect that they’re not okay, because something just feels a little off, ask them. Yet, only ask if you can listen without judgement. Depression often comes with a lot of shame: “How come I feel this way? What do I have to be depressed about when I have a job, great people, a beautiful home, amazing children, x, y and z in my life…”. When someone tells you they are depressed, that may have cost them a lot of effort. They are trusting you with something vulnerable, don’t betray that trust.

6 Tips for Helping Someone with Depression

How can you help someone who’s going through depression? This is a tricky one. You can ask how you can help, but when you’re in really deep, it seems like nothing will help. Yet, in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that these following gestures, sometimes very small, have offered me some relief:

  1. Listen.
    Just listen. Listen to understand (without saying “I understand how you feel.” Even if you’ve gone through a depression yourself, your experiences may have been very different.) Don’t give advice. Don’t (ever) tell someone to just “think happy thoughts” (if we knew how to do that we wouldn’t be depressed). What you can do is listen to how things are for them. Let them tell their story. Depression is often really lonely. Knowing someone is willing to just hear your story, to be there with you in the dark, can offer some relief, even if you can’t feel it right away.
  2. Check in from time to time.
    When my family and friends ask me how I’m doing, I don’t feel as guilty for putting a burden on them with my dark thoughts. It gives me a chance to let those stories out, which means they can fester less. It also helps me stay connected to others which, I believe, is a major part in climbing out of the hole.
  3. Practical assistance.
    As I’ve mentioned before, my partner tries to step in as much as he can to help cook, clean the house or take care of the children. My ex-husband also takes the children an extra day here and there, as do my parents. This helps me rest up a little so the busy days are easier to handle.
  4. Help point to professional help.
    My therapist is one of my lifelines. I’m glad I already visited her before I got to this point, because it takes a lot of effort to look for help when you’re in really deep. If there’s someone in your life suffering from depression, help them find professional help. Then check in from time to time to see how it’s working out. It may take a few tries to find the right therapist for you (and depressed people are likely to give up quickly if there’s no immediate match).
  5. Help foster joy.
    If you know of something your friend or family member has always enjoyed, or has always wanted to do but didn’t; if you know of a place they really like, or movie that always made them laugh; you can offer to take them with you. You may have to offer 100 times before you get a yes, but every offer also shows that you care. So it’s never in vain.
  6. Most importantly, take care of yourself first!
    Even in my depression, I find it hard not to worry about how other people are doing and whether or not I need to help them. I feel guilty for not being able to show up in their lives the way they need me to. Knowing that those people are looking after their own needs and don’t expect me to be there, helps me feel less anxious and less pressured. It also shows the person with a depression that it’s possible to look after yourself and still have energy to do other things.

Right, by the end of this post it seems I’ve kind of crammed two subjects into one blog post. At least this means I’ll write one less post about this dreary subject.

I hope this can be helpful to someone out there who sees someone they love sink deep. I’ve been on that side too, and it can be incredibly difficult, making you feel helpless and powerless. Just know that you are never to blame in the depression of a loved one, nor are you to blame for missing it. It can be really well hidden. And it’s important to guard your own energy closely when deciding how far you can and are willing to go to help.

Wishing you all plenty of stars to brighten the dark nights.

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